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Woman Sues Over '8THEIST' License Plate Rejection

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

A New Jersey woman is suing the state's Motor Vehicle Commission after being denied an "8THEIST" license plate.

Shannon Morgan filed suit against the Commission in federal court Thursday, claiming that the denial of her application for a license plate reading "8THEIST" is a violation of her First Amendment rights.

Does Morgan have a right to be "8THEIST" on the road?

New Jersey Takes on '8THEISM'

Morgan's beef with the Garden State is that she wants to express her atheist identity -- or "8THEIST" -- as much as anyone else expresses their deeply held beliefs. Morgan is represented in federal court by Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

AUSCS' executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, told the South Jersey Times that New Jersey was "favoring religion while disparaging non-belief." Under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, government entities can't favor one religion or act in a manner that would act to establish religion in the public sphere.

In her suit, Morgan notes that the Commission did not flag "BAPTIST" as objectionable when she filled out an application to see what would happen, reports the Times. If the Commission is preferring religious sentiments over her atheist ones through license plate applications, then Morgan may have a case.

In fact, the Garden State already fixed a similar complaint over the rights to an "ATHE1ST" license plate last August, reversing the decision to deem it "offensive." But perhaps both sides are using Morgan's case to have a federal court make a decision.

Car Adornments Can Be Regulated

New Jersey seems to be a hotbed of license plate controversy. The state's Commission also denied a "BIOCH" license plate in 2010 for being profane and objectionable.

Highways and most city streets are public places where the government has greater control over expression, so it may be perfectly legal to outlaw truck nuts or an "EATS***" license plate. But both of those examples involve obscenity or profanity, as opposed to an inoffensive statement of belief.

So it may be up to a federal court to decide whether Morgan has the right to bear "8THEIST" on her rear bumper. (The Associated Press attempted to reach the Motor Vehicle Commission, but it was closed for Good Friday.)

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